The changing face of Canadian basketball

Op-eds Opinions

It’s early November, and I’m watching Lakers highlights featuring hometown hero Steve Nash and his SportsCentre Top 10-worthy side-parted hair. But something’s not quite right: Nash languishes on the sidelines, his designer street clothes making him look more like GQ’s Dad of the Year than the starting point guard for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.

In truth, at this point in his career, this impression may well be accurate. A lot has happened in only a few months—a return to the lineup, a few good games, a 40th birthday, an ominously-titled video series—but not much has changed. Nash continues to battle chronic back problems and bitter Lakers fans, the threat of forced early retirement looming larger with each missed game. Not exactly surprising when you consider that Nash is not just an elder statesman of the league, but the eldest statesman.

In mid-November, I watched Kansas University’s Andrew Wiggins soar to the hoop for a fast break dunk over the windmilling arms of his defender, fellow freshman phenom Jabari Parker. The play proved crucial for Wiggins’ squad, stretching the Jayhawks’ lead to six points and fouling Parker out of the game. Wiggins would finish with a team-high 22 points en route to an early-season win over perennial collegiate powerhouse Duke.

Since that night, Wiggins has gone through the typical ups and downs of a college freshman; a mediocre stretch and the meteoric rise of his teammate Joel Embiid momentarily relegated him to second-best freshman on his own team. However, despite a disappointing early exit from March Madness, Wiggins managed to finish the year strongly enough to once again make him a favourite to go first overall in June’s NBA draft.

Both Wiggins’ and Parker’s otherworldly physical attributes and burgeoning skills put them in the same company as previous wunderkinds, from legendary household names (Kareem, LeBron), to the more ignominious (Lenny Cooke, Sebastian Telfair). However, one thing separates Wiggins from Parker, and from the rest: his Canadian passport.

The debate over whether Wiggins is destined to develop into the second coming of LeBron James or just another Lenny Cooke is somewhat beside the point. Right now, the Thornhill, Ontario native represents something that is just as important. He is, for better or for worse, the anti-Nash. Nash spent four years toiling away at tiny Santa Clara University before being taken seriously as a prospect; Wiggins will turn pro after just one year of college, having been on scouts’ radars since he was a middle school YouTube star. Nash wouldn’t look out of place bagging groceries; Wiggins has trouble just fitting into most cars. Nash is a shooting and passing savant; Wiggins is a defensive ace with the aerial capabilities and wingspan of a small aircraft. The little player that could; the can’t-miss prospect. Mind over matter; jump over everything. Old man; young gun. White; black.

Never mind all their similarities, that they’re both soft-spoken men from well-off households, that they both have professional athletics in their blood, that both were or will soon be first round picks in ballyhooed drafts. Never mind, too, that their differences are easy to overstate. Disregard that anyone who perseveres for 17 years and picks up two Most Valuable Player awards in one of the most physically grueling professions imaginable, as Nash has, must by necessity be an athletic marvel. Forget that mere track athletes do not become consensus number one high school basketball recruits in America, as Wiggins did, without possessing an arsenal of advanced skills. The Nash-Wiggins dichotomy is set up to gloss over these points and lay the foundation for a plot twist in the Canadian basketball narrative.

Although Wiggins seems poised to assume the mantle of Canadian basketball supremacy being vacated by Nash, he’s far from the only suitor. The teenager with the toothy grin is just the tip of the iceberg, the visible peak of a much larger trend. His ascension to stardom comes on the heels of three straight years in which multiple Canucks have heard their names called on draft night, including last year’s number one overall pick—a first for Canada—Anthony Bennett. More wait in the wings, as well. Canadian college stars Tyler Ennis and Nik Stauskas are expected to shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand not long after Wiggins does, and Trey Lyles and Jamal Murray are among several high schoolers already drawing rave reviews from scouts.

The Toronto Raptors in general, and Vince Carter’s aerial antics in particular, have deservedly received a great deal of credit for inspiring this new wave of talent. However, it’s hard not to feel as though Nash’s contributions to the game this side of the border are being taken for granted. Someone had to be the first to silence the naysayers, to prove that Canadians could be more than mere novelties, that they could in fact dominate the game invented by one of our own. Nash planted the seed that the Raptors (and, for a brief time, the dearly departed Vancouver Grizzlies) have been watering ever since. Now the fruit is ripening almost faster than it can be picked.

The upshot is that Canada is finally starting to garner a reputation as a basketball hotbed. This is undoubtedly great for fans who hope to see the Canadian men’s squad in the 2016 Rio Olympics and beyond, but it also puts a great deal of pressure on our current crop of players to meet increasingly lofty expectations and shed the underdog label. We used to be comfortable with our basketball identity as a nation of overachieving white guys. Now, rightly or wrongly, we’ll be expected to field a winning team.